Combining Town and Gown
THERE WAS A TIME WHEN URBAN UNIVERSITIES isolated themselves in their ivory towers, turning their backs on the local reality outside their environs in an attempt to keep students insulated from the problems plaguing cities. But it became clear that closing off campuses “ultimately created a less secure environment, because, frankly, it created an ‘us and them,’” atmosphere, says David Dixon, who heads Boston-based architecture firm Goody Clancy’s planning and urban design division. He adds that ignoring the community had several major effects. It hurt the economies of surrounding neighborhoods, such as when universities would buy land but leave it barren or not develop it in productive ways for the community. In addition, it created an antagonism between the communities and the schools.
“It also prevented the universities from doing anything particularly effective to help the neighborhoods around them in ways that would reduce crime. And, finally, what it did was kill life on the streets around universities, which makes them more dangerous,” says Dixon.
Over the past decade, many schools have been experiencing a change in attitude. They’ve gone from shutting the surrounding community out to working with it to decrease crime and make the campus a more desirable place to be.
“The idea that campuses are somehow detached and separate and walled off from surrounding communities has literally disappeared,” says Dixon. It’s been replaced with an attempt to erase boundaries and partner with community organizations in what are called town-gown relationships. Community outreach is now embraced as a means to a more welcome and secure campus.
The University of Pennsylvania (Penn) in Philadelphia is one school that has experienced notable changes since deciding to take a more active role in its surroundings. Back in the mid-1990s, it was in dire straits. Although it was a world-renowned Ivy League university with a large endowment, the school was plagued with robberies and assaults not only off campus but also within the heart of its West Philadelphia campus.
Maureen S. Rush, CPP, joined Penn in 1994 as its director of victim support and special services. She went on to become chief of the Penn Police Department and is now vice president for public safety at the university. She describes the environment she was met with when she first arrived at Penn: “If you think about the broken windows theory and how an environment has a feel to it, whether it feels safe or it doesn’t feel safe, whether it’s clean, dirty, there’s a lot of disorder, people hanging out, doing petty crimes, etc., that was the environment in ’94.”
Things got progressively worse for a while, culminating with the shooting of a student during a mugging outside of the university’s dental school in 1996. According to Rush, that shooting signaled a turning point. It served as the impetus for an initiative that would ultimately help the school clean up and renew area streets and dramatically decrease crime.
The school decided that instead of ignoring the surrounding community or trying to insulate itself from the area, it would become an active part of that community, working to add services and amenities that would make Penn’s pocket of West Philadelphia not only a destination for students and outsiders but also a safer place for local residents.
The university achieved its objective by taking development matters into its own hands. Penn started consolidating space—much of it vacant—on the then-dangerous Walnut Street corridor. The school then either developed the properties itself or leased them to major retailers, such as The Gap and Urban Outfitters.
On the edge. In addition to those land-use improvements, the university spearheaded changes in public safety. It helped to improve street lighting and to clean up and beautify neighborhood streets. All of these efforts combined to make the area a safer place. But the biggest contributor to the high crime at Penn was the relatively desolate aspects of many campus edges. “It was dismal,” says Rush.
To address that problem, the university worked with the community to create legitimate uses. The addition of various stores and restaurants, along with improved lighting and an increase in public-safety personnel, meant that “people had somewhere to go. Different restaurants were popping up, different retail shops. And then suddenly, people started coming out on the streets,” says Rush.
“If there are tons of people out, like in Manhattan, you feel so much safer than if you’re in a desolate area [where] you feel very unsafe, because it’s not lit well, there’s nothing open, there are no people on the streets,” she explains, “Having a buzz is what I like to call it, because you can feel it.”
Another important aspect of development at the edges of campus is that it helps bring students living off-campus back into the area around campus, says David Zaiser, partner and manager of the Philadelphia office for KSS Architects LLP, which stresses eradicating the town-gown distinction. Retail shops and other buildings create safe interaction areas bridging the gap between being on campus and off.
Design. Omar Blaik, who helped lead Penn’s real estate development efforts, oversaw a shift in the design of the buildings, with an eye toward increasing security. “Back in the early ’90s, if you had driven on Walnut from 30th street from the [Schuylkill] River to 40th street, all that you would have seen from Penn is either the loading docks of buildings or you would have seen empty parking lots,” says
Blaik, who now serves as president and CEO of Philadelphia-based development firm U3 Ventures.
To change the look and feel of the neighborhood, Penn “literally flipped the entrances of buildings to front the public streets,” Blaik explains. “We created streetscapes that are much more pedestrian friendly.”
The streetscape was improved with lighting aimed not only at driving but at enhancing the pedestrian experience as well. Now the sidewalks along Walnut Street have street lights as well as sidewalk lights. In addition, areas that used to be parking lots are now retail space and parks.
Penn also added more windows and glass fronts to buildings that had essentially been walled off from the street earlier. The school’s former faculty club was turned into a Fine Arts Studio with studio windows, and the Graduate School of Education’s first floor classrooms, which were formally a blank wall, are now open and windowed.
One important aspect of the development spurred by Penn was that it didn’t just revolve around campus interests. “Penn was very successful in integrating things that were very much synergistic,” between the school and the community, says Zaiser. For example, a grocery store was opened on Walnut Street, and it became a popular resource for the entire neighborhood.
“If you go to The Fresh Grocer today, at any time during the day, it is inevitable that you will see almost 50 percent students and 50 percent the elderly folks who live in the senior housing a block away and community folks who actually live several blocks away,” says Blaik. “The intermingling between community and students became extremely natural.”
Though security improvements were part of the overall effort, Blaik notes that the revitalization of the area has had a greater impact on public safety than security countermeasures alone could have had.
Many other schools are following similar paths. Among schools that have embarked on community development plans are Yale University in New Haven and Howard University in Washington, D.C.
Housing. Another issue relating to the edge is housing. Universities today increasingly understand the need to care about the housing in neighborhoods that surround the campus. To some extent, doing so overlaps with housing issues relating to students and faculty.
Dixon has been working with The Ohio State University (OSU) to revitalize the High Street neighborhood in Columbus. “It had the highest concentration of Section 8 housing, a lot of drug trafficking, and it was literally across the street from the campus,” says Dixon. OSU has had a police substation added to the neighborhood, and it is working with elementary schools to provide community services and is creating 500 units of mixed income housing.
“They’ve really gotten to know the community and who’s active in it, and they’re actively working with them on crime issues that affect that community just as much as the campus,” says Dixon.
Eric Moyen, a town-gown scholar and education professor at Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee, says that schools need a housing policy. One tactic schools have adopted is to provide faculty and staff members with incentives for living on and around the campus as a way of ensuring that they will be part of the surrounding community.
Among people who work at Penn who also live in the community are an executive vice president, a dean, and various department heads. “People are living in the neighborhood and have neighborhood aspirations but at the same time, they have positions within the institution, and that commonality, then, finds a common ground between community and university, rather than finding the points of conflict,” says Blaik.
There’s more to housing than caring about the university’s own, however. When Penn increased on campus housing for students, it simultaneously bought up houses near campus, some of which had been used as housing by students. These properties were then put up for sale at prices affordable to middle class residents. This resulted in increased home ownership in the area and a decrease in the amount of transitory residents.
“We ended up having housing that is year-round rather than cyclical with the academic year,” says Blaik. “That sustained retail year-round, so if you come to Penn during the summer, yes, you feel it is not as busy as during the (school) year, but it is not a huge drop.”
Other Outreach Efforts
Universities are also thinking of other ways to help their communities. At Penn, for example, the addition of a Penn-partnered public elementary school that faculty members’ children could attend also made the neighborhood a more attractive place for families.
Zaiser was involved in a similar addition of a charter school at New Jersey City University, in Jersey City, New Jersey. At that school, “the education students could teach, faculty could send their children to the school, and then there was a portion adjacent to it that could be leased for incubator space that was, for example, a spin off of research that was ongoing at the university,” says Zaiser. The university was using the school during what would have been off hours as well. Thus, he adds, “what was really wonderful about that is that it energized a place that was dark and quiet at night, and now there’re people there.”
Dixon agrees that it’s important to create bonds between the community and the school. “People who are part of the campus community and people who have lived in the community for years know each other and you kind of break down the us-them barriers.”
Community input. An important step in making changes like these without steamrolling community concerns is to have a quasi-independent entity that allows the campus to ensure that the community’s voice is being heard, says Dixon.
OSU worked with Campus Partners for Community Urban Redevelopment, which was created under an Ohio statute that provided redevelopment groups with public power like eminent domain. Campus Partners, which is independent but funded by the university, was initially criticized by the community. However, the relationship between the school and the community improved when it began to partner with residents and neighborhood organizations.
“Very often, universities don’t have anybody on staff who really understands how to partner with the city and surrounding neighborhoods. They’re much more focused internally, which is not surprising,” says Dixon.
Campus Partners’ board includes university appointees as well as city and community representatives. Through the group, the university learns more about the issues that are important to residents.
Neighborhood outreach helped Penn achieve a turnaround in crime, which includes a 43 percent decrease in robberies between 1996 and 2007. But that strategy was not the only factor in the school’s success. The school has also undergone major improvements in its security force and public safety department.
Penn’s Public Safety department is a major operation, with about 116 Penn Police officers and another 500 contract employees from AlliedBarton who serve as security guards and campus patrol officers. The department has an operating budget of about $21 million.
In addition to updating security equipment, the school also revamped the department. It became an internationally accredited police department in 2001, which means that officers have the same training and the same powers as other police officers. Penn had the first university police force in Pennsylvania to receive such accreditation.
The school not only raised the credentials of its police force, but it also set out to improve the force’s image in the community. “When I first came here, there were rumors in West Philly that the Penn Police were like the palace guard; no one felt welcome on Penn’s campus,” says Rush.
Now, she says, the police force reaches out to the community by providing an officer for a nearby school and working with the Police Athletic League, among other initiatives. “It’s not insulated,” Rush says, adding: We’re very open, we invite the community in.”
Captain John Potts, of Delaware’s Newark Police Department, works closely with the University of Delaware police, and he explains why the relationship between a university police department and the local department is so important: “The city line and the university campus boundary, it’s basically an artificial line. The criminals or those who want to cause problems don’t really realize where it is or don’t respect it if they do. And if we’re dealing with some person, the odds are they’re dealing with them in a different context.”
For example, when confronted with a recent spate of robberies past the Penn Police patrol boundaries, Penn joined forces with the Philadelphia Police department to provide two patrol officers.
Additionally, a Penn police captain provides monthly updates to a local meeting of neighborhood organizations. This outreach helps to ensure that the community is aware of any of the university’s security concerns. Similarly, the meeting provides an opportunity for the community groups to share their concerns with university representatives.
Moyen praises the approach that Penn took, but Blaik says that it may not work for every school. He notes that it was an extremely comprehensive long-term plan.
Blaik is currently consulting with other schools such as Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia and Saint Louis University in St. Louis, Missouri. At most sites, he says, he doesn’t have the luxury that he had at Penn of working in long-term incremental steps to improve the neighborhood. Instead, he looks for one or two “critical mass” projects.
“You are trying to get one project that has enough density and enough mixes of uses that turns around a whole commercial corridor or a campus edge,” says Blaik.
The State University of New York at Albany (SUNY Albany) became a forerunner in the town-gown movement when it established the Committee on University and Community Relations in 1990. That committee, which is made of SUNY Albany representatives as well as representatives from other nearby colleges and community groups, has expanded its aims to include improving safety off-campus as one of its main goals.
“We really have the philosophy that our responsibility for our students’ safety doesn’t end at the physical boundaries of the institution,” says Thomas Gebhardt, director of personal safety and off-campus affairs at the university.
The committee has been hailed as a model of campus-community involvement. Gebhardt works with tavern owners, landlords, and other neighborhood residents to get safety and security information out to students and nearby community members. For example, the committee asks tavern owners to hand out safety tips as students leave bars, to remind them not to walk home alone. They also hand out fire-safety tips to students.
The committee is focusing on off-campus housing improvement as well. Gebhardt’s group is putting together a compilation of tenants’ rights and responsibilities to “empower” students to ensure that their landlords are following the law.
For example, the committee wants students to know that “there has to be an inspection every 36 months of every rental property, and included in that inspection is about 12 or 13 different safety items that the landlord has to provide in the apartment to pass inspection, like a one-and-a-half inch deadbolt lock on the front door, says Gebhardt.
The committee has also taken a leadership role in the city’s Midtown Neighborhood Watch program. The university sends out patrols to report anything suspicious or even something unsafe, like lights blown out on the street.
Gebhardt has spoken at many conferences to provide advice on how to manage town-gown relations in an effective way. “More and more schools are realizing that to really have a total package regarding safety and also dealing with alcohol, that they need to get involved with the local community and extend what they’re doing beyond just the boundaries of their institution,” he says.
Another way the school stays abreast of what’s going on off campus is that, like many schools, it cultivates a relationship with the local police department. Gebhardt meets with the police once a month to discuss neighborhood safety issues, and he receives reports from the police department about any students who might have been victims or arrested in crimes. He also gets information about the locations of off-campus crimes. He compiles those reports to map out common crime areas so that he can spot any trends.
When there is a spike in crime, such as an increase in burglaries in an area, Gebhardt’s group and members of the police department go door to door to alert students and other residents in the neighborhood and distribute safety tips.
Albany has noticed a difference in crime since the committee began. There has been a 63 percent decrease in the number of SUNY Albany students reported as crime victims from 1992 through 2007 (July through June). That’s far greater than the average crime drop for the city of Albany as a whole during that time, which was 31 percent, according to the FBI’s Crime in the United States, 1992 and Crime in the United States, 2007, although those are yearly statistics, not July through June like SUNY Albany’s.
There are many ways for universities to become involved in their communities. Moyen refers to it as “a matter of enlightened self-interest.” By integrating with their communities, colleges and universities can help to make their surroundings more welcoming and attractive. That makes the campus itself more inviting to students, parents, and faculty—and it makes everyone safer in the process.
Laura Spadanuta is an assistant editor at Security Management.